BERLIN • Germany's centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) have nominated former European Parliament president Martin Schulz as their candidate to run against Dr Angela Merkel for the post of chancellor in September's national election.
The nomination followed party leader Sigmar Gabriel's decision to stand aside for Dr Schulz, a move that shows the SPD is serious about ending its role as a junior partner in Dr Merkel's right-left coalition after the Sept 24 vote.
Opinion polls suggest Dr Schulz, 61, has a better chance than Dr Gabriel - though still very small - of unseating the conservative Dr Merkel, who has led Germany since 2005 and is Europe's most powerful leader.
Her grand coalition with the SPD has governed Germany since 2013.
Asked during a news conference at the SPD headquarters in Berlin to explain his decision to make way for Dr Schulz, Dr Gabriel said: "Because he has a better chance."
Dr Schulz has taken a tough stance against right-wing populism across Europe and will fight for social justice and democracy, Dr Gabriel added.
The party is expected to confirm Dr Schulz's candidacy as well as his leadership of the SPD at a meeting on Sunday. However, Dr Schulz faces an extremely tough job to oust Dr Merkel, whose conservatives lead the SPD in opinion polls by up to 15 percentage points.
Earlier, Dr Gabriel made a rare attack on Dr Merkel and her insistence on financial austerity during the euro zone crisis.
"The policies of Angela Merkel and (Finance Minister) Wolfgang Schaeuble have no doubt contributed to the deep crises in the EU since 2008, to the isolation of a dominant German government and, through a relentless insistence on austerity, to high unemployment outside Germany," he said in a statement.
This has boosted anti-European populist parties, he added.
The SPD wants to form a coalition with smaller parties on the left but most analysts still think another right-left coalition is the most likely outcome of September's election.
Senior SPD lawmaker Karl Lauterbach told broadcaster WDR: "This is a clear signal - no grand coalition. With Martin Schulz we have a better chance."
A poll conducted this month by the Emnid institute for the Bild newspaper showed that in a direct vote, Dr Schulz would win 38 per cent versus 39 per cent for Dr Merkel, compared to a result of 27 per cent for Dr Gabriel and 46 per cent for Dr Merkel.